With the 100th birthday of the Macon County Singing Convention on the horizon and the Do Re Mi Gospel Music Academy, in Hartsville, presenting “Let Us Sing” a weekend of shape note convention music this month, I decided to sit down with Key Dillard last Saturday morning, at the beautiful campus of the Cumberland River retreat, which is located at 275 Cedar Bluff Road, just off the old Lebanon Highway, in Trousdale County.
Dedicated to the millions of people who love music, which is a subtle friend to all, Key is continually striving to further its’ use among young and old alike, and I certainly enjoyed spending a few hours talking with “Coach Dillard” about the convention, the Academy and his years in Macon County.
The Macon County Singing Convention, which once took place at the courthouse on the public square in Lafayette, was one of the biggest events in the history of our county. The convention was originally organized at Haysville Methodist Church almost a hundred years ago, but it began to grow in interest so fast, that it moved to town and by the late 1920’s it had become something of a homecoming event with the crowds becoming larger and larger, and from 1935 to 1942 it was estimated that 8,000 to 10,000 people attended each year.
“People would leave home as early as 7:00 a.m. to get a parking place on the square and by 10:00 vehicles would be parked on all the roads leading to town from a half mile or farther, with special buses from Nashville chartered to make the trip to Lafayette,” said Key. “Carnivals would come to town, setting up near the square and stands would be scattered everywhere selling cold drinks, hot dogs & cakes to the large crowds attending.”
Key said anyone who was anyone attended, and to see and be seen was a big part of the event. The courthouse would be packed with listeners but this would be nothing compared to the throng of people outside who enjoyed the event, which was organized by Andrew Wheeley, Joe West, Otto Johnson, Otis Johnson and George W. Johnson.
“Singers would come from everywhere and nationally known quartets appeared on the program at times,” Key continued. “Macon County has had a few well known groups itself including the Macon County Quartet, Macon County Ladies Quartet and the Tennessee Harmoneers.”
It is written that during World War II the convention began to decline and was never the same again and it was moved to the churches around the county and the crowds who once attended have vastly decreased.
The son of Witt and Sally Oldham Dillard, Key was brought in to the world on February 29, 1940 by Dr. Wilson in the Galen Community. “I am a leap year baby,” Key laughed, “so actually I’m only 18-years-old.”
The family moved to Lafayette in 1951 and Key graduated from MCHS in 1958, and attended Cumberland Jr. College on a basketball scholarship and finished at MTSU graduating in 1965 with a Master’s degree in Education.
“I taught at Lafayette Elementary School for four years,” Key recalled, “coaching football and basketball. I went on to coach basketball & football at Portland, as well as Putnam County High School where I was head basketball coach, assistant football coach, as well as assistant principal.”
From there Coach Dillard went to work for the State Department of Education for 26 years, retiring in 2000 remaining in Murfreesboro, which he has called home since 1974.
His music career began when he was five years old taking piano lessons, but he later wanted to play sports and his interest was fleeting after he started coaching. But an invitation to a singing convention stirred something inside of the coach, and he says the Lord opened his eyes with singing and the music buried inside of him came rushing forward and he’s never looked back.
Coach Dillard was instrumental in organizing the Cumberland Valley School of Gospel Music at Cumberland University in 1983 (which later moved to Martin Methodist College), he later embarked on music missions to foreign nations teaching shape note music and in 1999 Cumberland University approached him again about organizing a shape note music school, thus the Do Re Mi Gospel Music Academy, Inc. was born.
“We met at Cumberland University for ten years,” Key explained, “with our first session in 2000. A lot of people were interested in our non-profit organization and started searching for land and in 2010 we bought 23 acres at 275 Cedar Bluff Road on the picturesque Cumberland River in Hartsville. This is the first phase of building and we have two dormitories that can house 100 people, an educational building with seven classrooms, a pavilion that has a food court, and space for games of all kinds.”
“We operate for the glory and honor of God, and our mission is to teach students of all ages to sing the Lord’s music to the best of their ability, and to pass on to the present generation from our forefathers, the shape note method of music reading. The Do Re Mi represents the seven note syllables of the scale: Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do.”
The “Let Us Sing” exciting river retreat weekend will feature workshops and convention singing. “We are thrilled to welcome Dr. Stephen Shearon, Charles Towler, Tracey Phillips, Sen. Jimmy Jeffress, Tom Powell, Lisa Powell and Bob Bradley for a weekend of Shape Note Convention Music. These highly regarded presenters will cover several topics regarding the importance of shape note music in the twenty-first century. There will be many highlights over the two-day event, and children 12 and under will also have the opportunity to learn about music under Lisa Powell. At the close of the weekend all are invited to attend The Macon County Singing Convention, Saturday, March 24, at 2 p.m. at Long Fork Missionary Baptist Church in Lafayette.”
Key Dillard and his wife, Shirley, have two son, Kris and Kevin. Coach Dillard was inducted into the Macon County Sports Hall of Fame in 2005.